Storytelling is powerful medicine. Sometimes, storytelling can deliver a level and type of comfort to a patient or family that no amount of prescription medications can touch.
This is especially true for families who are in transition or in the process of losing someone they love. The holidays are particularly difficult times for people who are sick, separated from loved ones, suffering, or coping with anticipatory loss. Over the years, I have heard many families say they struggle to find meaningful ways to celebrate the season or experience joy when they feel anchored down by sadness, grief, estrangement, worry, or the overwhelming weight of an impending death.
The best stories carry the power to transport someone to another time and place. They can help someone forget about their current surroundings or situation and allow them to become immersed into another reality. The immersion can feel soothing, reassuring, and spiritually profound. For someone who is seriously ill, storytelling provides them with an opportunity to preserve memories and wisdom. Sometimes, it is also a chance for the person to talk through issues that remain unresolved.
People nearing the end of life tend to be reflective, looking back on what they did well and what they wished they would have done differently. They want to pass that wisdom forward to those they love. Being remembered for more than one generation is important.
Emerging research has revealed that a variety of chemicals are released in the brain as people tell and listen to stories. People become lighter and happier, and they realize that their life story is worth sharing and preserving. The story becomes medicine for both the storyteller and the listener. Dottie Kluttz, a retired hospice nurse from Hospice Savannah, said, “I know there are a lot of people studying the ways a story can help people feel better, but I don’t care about the science of it. I care about the magic of it.”
When my own mom was dying of breast cancer that had slowly and painfully metastasized to her spine and liver, we both found immeasurable comfort, and a few rays of laughter in the telling of family stories and experiences we longed for from a distant era. She asked me to write down the things we discussed and to remember the joy they brought into our lives.
Following her death, I blended our shared stories to capture the essence of what made our holidays special. As research suggests, I find comfort and healing in the power of our personal narratives every time I pull them out of my dresser drawer and remember. There is one piece that always feels like a visitation from an old friend.
Written in December of 1994 – two years after mom’s death:
The longings are intense this time of year. I wish I could lift my weight and soar with the autumn geese above the expansive Wisconsin marsh … to feel weightless and experience the glide underneath my limbs as I survey the wetlands from on high and watch them become soft patches of shaded sea foam green and gold, quilted together by threads of sparkling silver and muted pewter.
I long to embody achievement. Not the adulterated brand, but the variety that flows from finishing a task directly tied to the reason for my existence. I need to see that my day-to-day life leads to a temple
of sum and substance.
I long to be wrapped in the amber tones of my mother’s voice and encounter the warm vibration
of her raspy words and character – an experience that mimics the glowing tang of a favorite tawny port.
If only I could, once again, feel her abundant, hearty spirit push out the walls of a room.
I want to go back in time . . . to the backdrop of my youth; to Aunt LuLu’s tiny urban home where the tinseled Christmas tree extends to the middle of the living room and relatives are spilling out of every doorway and onto an ice-covered wooden porch. To be back in a smoke- and laughter-filled house brimming with aunts and uncles, great aunts and great uncles, cousins and second cousins, grandmas and grandpas and LuLu’s charcoal poodle Pepe – all crammed in like a litter of playful high-powered puppies in a cardboard box.
I long for the chrome and vinyl kitchen chairs placed on lemon and grass green swirls of linoleum, and the whirling aromas of oven roasted turkey and brown sugared ham, brandy and beer, Virginia Slims and Camels, pecan pie, brown-edged mashed potatoes in Nesco roasters, melting chocolate Santas and sweat. I crave the satisfying sound of cards being shuffled, cut, banged and whacked on salt and pepper Formica as grandpa declares, “fifteen two, fifteen four and a pair is six.”
I long to once again be blanketed by this patchwork of texture, color and warmth, and then, after a long hard play that’s produced cherry cheeks and a glistening forehead, to sink into sleep with my head braced by the refuge of mom’s lap.
Capturing and telling stories can be profoundly effective in helping someone reflect on chapters of life that were especially poignant or important. The stories themselves carry magic to connect and heal.
The work of recalling and contemplating memorable experiences can generate a sense of purpose, reassurance, self-understanding, validation, and clarity. In times of transition, especially at the end of life, story-sharing holds the power to illuminate a path forward. It can also provide an immeasurable sense of serenity and closure.
For families, this work creates a sense of lineage and heredity that can easily be lost as older generations die off and take their stories to the grave. Families frequently talk about doing this work but rarely get around to taking the initiative. Sometimes they may not be sure where to begin, however, those who work in end-of-life care would say, “begin today.”
Story-sharing helps us to truly know and to be known. It helps us understand where we came from, where we want to be, and why our life matters. It defines us and binds us. Every life is a tale worth telling. It may be the best gift we can exchange during a season of giving and sharing.